On Subcultures and Scenes in Craig Finn’s “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight”

This piece is about an absolutely amazing song by Craig Finn called “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight.” We will also expand on the song’s theme, which is how subcultures (and “scenes”) operate. Finn is, in my opinion, the greatest lyricist working today (not the greatest living lyricist, that’s still Dylan). I’ve written about about Finn before here, and here.

Finn himself says that “It’s Never Been A Fair Fight”:

“is about the extreme difficulty of staying true to the rigid rules of a subculture as you get older. The character in the song revisits an old peer and finds struggle and disappointment in the place he left behind.”

In this case, the narrator had been part of the punk/hardcore scene in the 1980’s and 1990’s, has left the scene, and reflects on his time there and what it meant as he meets his old friend, and we suppose former lover, Vanessa. I’m not sure I understand the entire chronology of the song, as it engages in some apparent time jumps that can be little hard to follow. Overall however, it is pretty clear what the song is about. The opening verse sees the narrator (let’s call him C, because while we will grant Finn the understanding as an artist that his characters are characters, in this case the song feels pretty autobiographical) checking in with Vanessa. The song opens in the present day.

I met Vanessa right in front of her building/ she was vague in taste and drowning/ she says she’s got a new man and he’s in a new band/ and they’ve got a new sound

I said hardcore’s in the eye of the beholder/ I’ve got a broken heart from 1989/ I was holding me head in my hands from the heat/ there were elbows in my eyes.

While we get the impression that C has been out of the scene for a while, Vanessa is very much still in it, new man, new band, new sound, same old place. Vanessa’s man, we assume, is in a hardcore band, and I believe it is the case that Finn came up through the hardcore scene before forming his first band Lifter Puller. Lifter Puller is not a hardcore band, and I don’t know if Finn was actually in a hardcore band or just in the scene.

“Hardcore’s in the eye of the beholder” is a funny line for a number of reasons (it also reminds me of the classic David Berman line “punk rock died when the first kid said/ punk’s not dead/ punk’s not dead”). In any case, after C recalls his broken heart from 1989, the song shifts back in time, back to when C was attending hardcore shows, hot and sweaty, elbows in his eyes.

Vanessa said that there’s threads that connect us/ flags and wars we should never accept/ Angelo said that there’s snakes in the smoke/ from the cigarettes

Ivan isn’t all that concerned/ he said it’s mostly about what you wear to the show/ I think the scene’s gonna fall apart pretty soon/ heard a song that I liked on the radio

Finn is an absolute master of sketching characters in just a line or two. Here, he uses a sort of pointillistic approach to introduce us to two additional members of the scene, Angelo and Ivan. With just a few short verses we already understand a great deal about “the scene.” Here is what we can deduce:

i) All four members of the scene have very differently valenced loyalties. Put another way, they want different things from it. Vanessa is a purist; for her being part of the scene is like being part of an tribe, an army, and we take her to be a fierce protector of the in-group/ out-group aspects that tend to arise in subcultures. Angelo, it seems, is a little out there; he’s seeing snakes in the cigarette smoke and probably not all that interested in the ultimate nature or meaning of the scene. Ivan likes the t-shirts and jeans, likes the look. He’s not a purist either. And C, well he likes a little pop music, an inclination we assume is strictly verboten for folks like Vanessa.

ii) Probably because of the differences in ideas and ideologies between the scene members, C sees things coming to an end, both with the scene and between he and Vanessa. Here we are reminded of the difficulty of keeping any kind of group together, whether a scene, a band, or just a group of friends. Everyone knows the feeling of having a group of friends who tell each other they will be tight forever, however life doesn’t usually work that way. The best film about this dynamic is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, which depicts a young group of friends in Manhattan who come together and then slowly, but inevitably, come apart over the course of a winter. There is a great moment in Metropolitan where the main character, Tom, looks around and realizes the scene is dead. Where did it go? It was here one day, gone the next. Scenes are like that, and this is what Finn is writing about.

iii) The inherent differences between people which make keeping the scene together are also something that Finn celebrates to a certain extent I think. One of the most salient features of Finn’s writing is his compassion. Finn has compassion for Angelo and his snakes, Ivan and his jeans, and for Vanessa, in all of her rigidity. As of the time of the song we know for sure that Vanessa is still in the scene and C is not. I guess that neither Angelo or Ivan is still around, however if only one of them is my money’s on Angelo, if he’s still alive.

Through the course of my own life, I have been involved, for a shorter or longer time, with a variety of subcultures. One category of subculture that I have frequented is what we could broadly call “new age.” My explorations of this category have been reasonably extensive. Back in my early 20s, I was involved for about 4-5 months with a Tibetan Buddhist group back in Washington State. I would get up at 4 AM, drive an hour across town to a beautiful old house on the hill, and meditate with the folks there. This group also organized some outings, such as mountain hiking.

I enjoyed the group and the meditation. The group leader, a slightly older woman who was lovely, asked me to pay like 6 dollars for a little book with chants in it, which I did. There was a total cross-section of people in the group of different ages and backgrounds, and all in all I liked it there. However, I peeled off from the group after a time for reasons very similar to those discussed by Finn. There were two specific things that led to me leaving. The second I’ll discuss a little later. The first was one day I was chatting with one of the members on the street outside after meditation. He was telling me how his daughter used to play chess, however he would no longer allow her to do so because it was interfering with her studies of Tibetan Buddhism. “There’s just not enough time,” he told me.

I had talked with this guy before and he was a perfectly nice guy, but I didn’t agree with his approach. I felt, in fact, that it was bad action. Now, I understood that people joined the group for different reasons and had different levels of investment. I was not looking to become a Tibetan Buddhist or anything—I was just “checking it out.” To circle back to Finn, the valence gap between this fellow’s take on the subculture and my own was vast, and his entire approach turned me off. This was the first step in my deciding to leave.

The next three verses of “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight” see C trying to keep the door open to Vanessa even as he edges out of the scene. He wants to meet her and if she agrees he will know that she like him feels that “punk is not a fair fight.” Finn doesn’t say, but I’m guessing Vanessa doesn’t show.

If things change quickly/ just remember I still love you/ and I’ll circle ’round the block tonight/ between 9 and 10 o’clock tonight

If you’re still standing here, I’ll take that as a sign/ that you agree it was a sucker punch/ punk is not a fair fight/ it’s never been a fair fight

We said there weren’t any rules/ but there were so many goddamn rules/ we said that they’d be cool/ but then there were so many goddamn rules

Verse VII is the hinge-point of the song and basically it’s thesis. Finn’s point is straightforward: the appeal of the scene was the potential for freedom, exploration, rebellion, however once inside the subculture C finds himself increasingly hemmed in by the strictures of that culture and the requirements necessary to remain within it. The very thing that drew C to the subculture (flight from an over-determined social reality) is that thing that ultimately drives him away. “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight,” appears in two versions on the 2021 record All These Perfect Crosses; the main version is horn driven and upbeat, and there is also an acoustic version. On the main version, Finn, realizing perhaps that the repeated line is a bit poetically unorthodox, spits out a laugh on the “then” in “but then there were so many goddamn rules,” and in the process underlines the centrality of the sentiment to the song as a whole. It’s a great verse, and one which tells us something fundamental about C’s nature: he likes the action, and as such needs to be free to pursue it wherever it may be. Action is not limited to the Minneapolis hardcore scene, after all.

Read more